The Intelligent Workplace

The Intelligent Workplace

Episode 22

The need to humanize technology.

​Sean Ferrel
CEO at Managed Solution​​

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A recent comment from a colleague about a piece of tech being “too cold” got me thinking. What is cold tech? Is that even a thing? What he was actually referring to was the fact that the tech was poorly designed, it wasn’t humanized. Humanizing tech refers to designing technology to be better for humans, and better at interacting with humans.
 
I wanted to know more about humanizing technology, so I invited Sean Ferrel onto the podcast. Sean is the founder of Managed Solution, an award winning IT Services Consultancy from San Diego. He describes himself as “Subject Matter Expert on opinions”, and backs that claim up with 20 years experience in the Tech World. One of his passions is the science behind humanizing technology.
 
In this episode we discuss some of the humanizing strategies designers use, how artificial intelligence is influencing it, and what the future holds in this space.
 
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Sean:                     Oh, thank you Chris. Pleasure to be here and great intro. The only thing I’d correct is it’s unfortunately Managed Solutions. The plural one was very expensive to buy and the guy who owns it won’t sell it to me. So we’ll just say we’re Managed Solution.com.

Chris:                     Solution.

Sean:                     But thanks for having me.

Chris:                     Pleasure to have you. Now look, today we are going to be talking about humanizing technology, which I know is one of your passions. So let’s swing for the fence from the start here. What does it mean to humanize technology and why do you believe that we need to do it?

Sean:                     Well yeah. So I mean it’s a big deal to me. I mean just the fact that technology itself, obviously it plays such an important role on how we make decisions now and frankly is AI and machine learning and all this other stuff that we read about that is intimidating for many comes about. It’s something that I think we as humans need to really get ahead of and adopt and do it quickly. Because ultimately as I try to dumb it down for people all the time, I explain this to folks that there’s a lot of data in the world. Everybody wants to collect our data from the Netflix of the world to the Microsofts, the Googles, the Amazons, you name it. They want our data, whether it’s at home or in the workplace.

                                And ultimately they want to take that data or we want to take that data and do something good with it and create what’s called AI or business intelligence to be able to better assess what we do next in life. So I think today as I tell people a lot of the time, the data being collected, maybe it’s not always being used in the best way. Maybe it’s more for marketing to get you interested in the next pair of jeans you’re going to buy. But I think in the future if we can take data and ultimately put it to good use, whether it’s around our health, how we deal with our families, how we deal with things in the workplace to better what we do in everyday life. I think it could be very impactful. So yeah, I think data is going to lead the charge in the future if done in the right way. Just got to figure out how to embrace it and ultimately how to use it and adopt it.

Chris:                     So how do you feel about the idea that while technology is connecting us better than ever before, we also feel a little bit cold and controlled by it. And therefore pretty much more disconnected than ever.

Sean:                     Well, I think that we feel right now that technology is sort of an adversary to us. And a lot of that is just, I think the simple of just trying to understand basically how that technology works and how to better take advantage of it. So I think what’s happened is that I don’t know if people are familiar with this, there’s a book out there called Consumption Economics and it talks about the consumption gap and how technology’s evolved so fast and the human following right behind that just can’t keep up with the amount of tools and features and technologies and just things that are out there.

                                So there’s this gap and what ends up happening is, is that people become resentful and end up, and resentful is my word, end up not wanting to use the technology or don’t adopt it as they say. But the reality is, is that if people can, as companies build new technologies, if they can make them simpler to use all in one really can be purchased through one provider or I mean you’re seeing it right now, you’re seeing how the Amazons of the world can deliver you consumer goods. They can deliver your groceries at home, they can deliver you food, they can deliver you an experience at work with their cloud. I mean, companies like that, they’re starting to make it easier to do everything through one platform. And so in essence, what we’re finding is that people are starting to adopt it as ease of use becomes simpler.

Chris:                     But is technology growing a little bit faster than maybe our human needs and maybe faster than our brains can actually handle?

Sean:                     Well, I think the short answer is I think that’s an, I would say it’s a no-brainer to say yes that it is definitely growing at a pace that we’re trying to keep up with. And we joke all the time. In the workplace and what we do, developers that we have today, machines that are doing machine learning will replace us eventually here as developers. So we have to take a hard look at that as people in the workplace or people in certain professions where what technology is doing to leap past our ability as a human in terms of our brains to be able to do certain things.

                                It’s just going to happen. So what we have to do to be smarter than the technology is figure out where we play in that world. And so, yeah, the answer is it’s moving too quick for a lot of us. But I think as you think about what technology can do to better enable certain things. I’ll just use autonomous driving as a simple example, what can we do as business people or users of the autonomous driving to better the future for us, our kids and their kids. And I think that’s tough conversation, but it has to be had as these things are sort of moving faster than we are.

Chris:                     And it is a tough conversation because you’ve got Hollywood sort of pushing the storyline that robots will be taken over our lives in conjunction with what people are seeing in real life, aren’t you?

Sean:                     I mean, I tell this story a lot all the time. I’ve got a really unique opportunity to sit with the futurist. That was her title at Ford motor company about three years ago. And she said probably the two biggest things that are in our lifetimes current today that will change what we do is autonomous driving and predictive healthcare. And when I first heard it three years ago, I thought to myself, “We’re going to see these driverless cars. And that was one cool thing.” But then I started really thinking about, “Gosh, I mean, what happens when we know what’s going to happen to us physically and mentally as we get older from a healthcare perspective.” And then I started thinking about insurance companies and how are they going to, knowing that something’s going to happen to me in a negative way, how are they going to insure me in the future?

                                Or what might I do with my money? If all of a sudden I know that I may only live for a certain amount of years, would I spend it different and would that ultimately change global economies for that matter because money flowed differently than it has today. Just because of the fact I know what’s going to happen. Or we talk about autonomous driving and I ask the question all the time and I think the Lyft guys who did a webinar on this about a couple of years ago, talk about what happens to all the real estate in the world when we don’t own cars, cars are driving all over the place and ultimately parking garages, parking in our homes, places where cars sit today won’t need to sit anymore. What happens to all that real estate and what happens to the way that the markets out there where there’s excess availability. Just things that we have to think about. And I was challenging some broker friends of mine the other night that will change the way business is handled and frankly our personal lives are dealt with.

Chris:                     Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So look, we mentioned earlier that technology can be seen as cold and heartless and there’s an effort now to sort of re-humanize that technology. Is that something that is new right now or is it just gaining more prominence the deeper that tech embeds itself in our lives?

Sean:                     Well, so I think the future of utilizing tech back to what we talked about a few minutes ago with that consumption gap, the features are just way too many to keep up with. I think what’s going to happen in the world of technology, technologists like myself, is we’re going to have to help people with the experience. Not the things are broken or the computer doesn’t work anymore or my mobile phone is offline or the wireless connection doesn’t work. But really, how do I take basic technologies and tools that are put in front of me in everyday life and make them advantageous to the things I do. So my example and we own a help desk, a true 24/7 help desk here in the US. We always say to our employees, “Hey, when a person calls in, forget about the fact that Microsoft Excel is not going to be offline or not working anymore.”

                                It’s going to work because it’s now housed in the Microsoft cloud. But what do will be interested in figuring out how do I take advantage of some of the new features to create, I don’t know, pivot tables or tables to present Power BI, to be able to do different things with. So it’s going to be about the experience and that’s where things will change and technology won’t be seen as such a negative thing anymore. But it really is now about the user experience going forward.

Chris:                     It sounds like that’s a bit of a basic rule for humanizing technology. Are there some other things that we need to sort of consider?

Sean:                     I think on the humanizing side of technology we just need to figure out how it all plays. And I say that in that the business world and the personal world are coming together in so many different ways from, gosh, what we do at home and the data that we’re uploading through the internet, the passwords, the information about ourselves and the same thing that’s happening in the business.

                                It’s all becoming interconnected. And obviously through that you’re getting a lot of, oh gosh, advertisements and marketing and things like that sent your way that may not be helpful or frankly healthy. And I think that has got to change and change in a positive way as I mentioned earlier, to where it helps us lead better lives as humans. And until then I think we’re going to struggle with things like securing from the wrong stuff coming at us or making sure that relevant data sent our way rather than irrelevant data. So understanding how to better navigate stuff that’s being pushed towards us and saying no to it and ultimately figuring out the things that work right for us. Because at the end of the day, I think the biggest thing right now that’s happening is just this sort of tech overload where there’s just too much being pushed.

                                And one example, and again, I mean no harm to the social media space that’s out there. But I always say this about … Think about 10 years ago that access to information whether it was Facebook or LinkedIn or any of those things, it was not readily available. I couldn’t have told you if I would met you on the street where you worked at for the last 10 years, what college you went to and known that much stuff about you. And the thing is, is that I think as humans, what I’m finding, and I asked my wife this all the time at home. We spend a lot of time on the internet looking at things that other people are doing in life and ultimately comparing ourselves against those other people. 10 years ago I wouldn’t even known anything about that other person.

                                We would have met them in the street and ultimately had a first impression and said, “Hey, I’m going to like you or dislike you.” But today it’s like we have all the information about people and it comes with a lot of preconceived judgment. And I just don’t know how helpful that is to human society. So I struggle with it a little bit with what the social world has done and how technology has been a part of that.

Chris:                     I was asking a colleague of mine this week that same question, and he put it beautifully, when he said to me, he said, “I think it needs to be inclusive. I think it needs to be convenient because we’re so time poor and in the same sort of vein, it’s just got to be simple and then technology wins us over.”

Sean:                     Yeah, yeah. Time is our enemy, that’s for sure. And I think that where technology can help us lead a more efficient life. I think that’s where it’s going to win us over. And until then it’s going to be more of a cumbersome thing where, I mean honestly it could be a distractor and I don’t think that’s healthy for human society.

Chris:                     Oh, I’m hearing you, with a young family to run, a job, all that sort of things. Just making things convenient and efficient. I’m all for it. Absolutely.

Sean:                     And let me, I mean, I’ll give you … It’s funny, timely, because we just had our Thanksgiving holiday and I’ve watched, I mean five years ago, 10 years ago, my family, my wife, my parents and friends, I mean how their shopping habits have went from going physically to stores to having opportunities to buy things online. I think it’s played a very impactful role in some ways where we’ve been able to spend more time at home with our kids and be able to get things out of the way a lot faster. I’ve seen friends and family and now even my own immediate family adopt the online grocery thing where things are being delivered to our house and it really keeps track of the things when the kids were out of milk, do we need more milk for their cereal?

                                And again, it does allow us more time with our family to do certain things. So I think there are benefits-

Chris:                     For sure.

Sean:                     … to keeping people, immediate families together as long as you can get these online things out of the way. And like I say, the disadvantages are, gosh, when I see my children on the couch playing a video game, getting into something that preoccupies their mind for hours and hours and we don’t get that time together as a family. That for me is where I have to say we take sort of a technology cleanse and have our Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays where we don’t see any technology in our house purposely so that way we can spend-

Chris:                     I like it.

Sean:                     … more time with family. So it is a, as I call it, a slippery slope of good and bad with how it’s advantageous and how I’ve seen where it can really affect our kids. And then in the younger generation, I’ve seen our kids really miss out on the human aspect of nothing will replace seeing someone in person physically, mentally, just even feeling their aura of being around somebody. And technology has presented a way to do that via a screen and a tablet. And again, I just don’t think it’s healthy, so I get a little bit worried.

Chris:                     Which is why we should have been doing these interview face-to-face today. But unfortunately it’s a bit cost prohibitive.

Sean:                     Yes, and that’s an advantage.

Chris:                     Yeah. Hey Sean, look, I love to tell stories on this podcast and one that really stuck with me in terms of humanizing technology was the story I read recently about, I’m probably pronouncing this wrong, but Huang Yi and his dance with a robot at a TED conference a couple of years ago. He, I did a bit of research into, he had this really terrible childhood and as a result really withdrew into himself and decided that to survive he had to be the perfect child, which was almost robot like. And then you fast forward to his adult life and he partnered with a robotics company called KUKA, I believe it was, to perform this dance on stage with a robot.

                                And it was such a beautiful thing. It was kind of like a release, a bit of a healing. And it let him put his terrible past behind him. It was absolutely magic. Now I don’t want to put you on the spot because that is a great example, but is there something that stands out for you as an example of humanizing technology in such a way that it sort of really evokes a human emotional response?

Sean:                     Yeah, I believe if I’m not mistaken, it was a young kid, quadriplegic who … or I believe he was in a wheelchair. So he may not have been. But he was able to go online, I believe it was, use a Microsoft Xbox, use some special controls. And ultimately through the world of online gaming many of his friends who were playing with him down the street were able to come on and run down the street and actually come into his home and watch him-

Chris:                     I love that.

Sean:                     …. I think ultimately win the game. It was a very heartfelt thing. And that’s the cool stuff about technology. I mean people, the tools, I mean you think about the seven sense or the six senses, actually seven, I think there’s a seventh one as well, the six senses. I mean, you’re seeing things now where hands or eyes or ears or things like that aren’t even necessarily needed anymore to do certain things that technology has enabled. So it is amazing to see that stuff happen.

Chris:                     It’s funny, we talk about re-humanizing technology and in doing so I feel like we’re kind of rejecting the foundation of what computing is all about, structure, code, language commands and all those sorts of things.

Sean:                     Oh, for sure yeah. We’re seeing a huge … we’re seeing what we call a lot of, the new term is like the citizen developer. The idea that reinventing the wheel exists anymore. Meaning a traditional developer has to go out and build something from scratch. It just doesn’t happen anymore. We’re seeing that anybody who’s interested in sort of, I’ll call it connecting the dots, can go out there and find platforms, if you will, or what I’ll call web parts and apps and things like that. And connect all these things together and ultimately create something that’s either for them or for the people around them or potentially for their business. So I just, I wouldn’t be afraid anymore to think to myself, “Oh, I need to go out there and become a coder or go to college all these years to be a programmer.”

                                The ultimate that … The answer is if you’re into technology and you get online today, the tools are readily available for you and ultimately they’re easily connected, which then makes you, as I said earlier, sort of that citizen developer. And then the other thing that happened, I’d say in the last five years, which has been super cool, is that, and I heard the term earlier this year, democratizing digital. I think that all the big players and all the companies who are out there building great solutions to impact the people on our planet are doing it in a shared way now. They’re not so stringent on if you’re a Microsoft player, you have to only work with Microsoft or Google. It’s really about sharing great technologies they’ve all created together and getting them out into the hands of the real world. And hopefully through companies like us, which has been where we get the biggest impact we get to be able to tell the story about what can be possible through technology using these 800 pound gorilla stories and software platforms.

Chris:                     So, overall is all of this humanizing designed to maybe augment human intelligence or support it or disrupt it or maybe even be a substitute for it?

Sean:                     Well, I mean for now in what I’ve seen is it’s, I’ll call it and hopefully this stuff is to help augment and automate in areas that maybe the human is not necessarily needed per se. And I don’t want to get into political debate on whether or not you should automate how we build a car in a factory or things like that. What I would say is ultimately it’s where it helps us make better decisions in life is where we need to see this technology grow. So there’s a lot of talks around this, but if artificial intelligence or the machine that takes my data and learns about what it is I’m up to from a habit perspective can better help me lead a better life. Think about the Fitbits and the different health apps like that.

                                If that stuff is beneficial to us and it motivates us to do certain things and frankly, if it leads us down the right path, I think it’s very beneficial. I mean, I’ll give you an example of these cloud health apps that are out there from everybody, from Apple to Fitbit to Google, Microsoft, all of them have them these days. I mean, the cool part about them is that creates a habit for people. People login. See what’s going on every day. Sometimes they don’t have to log in at all. It just automatically knows that they’ve woken up, they’re doing something, taking their steps and it creates habits in people and hopefully these type of habits from a health perspective are good habits. So I think it’s a good way to augment say having the work out part of it may not be available or just having something that keeps you accountable if you will, for what you’re doing on a daily basis.

Chris:                     It’s funny, I sort of was thinking about this dehumanizing effecting the tech world would be a marketer’s nightmare being that I’m a marketer. I sort of thinked about that a lot, because any marketer will tell you that the power of the story and the emotional link to the customer is a real key to engaging them. But with bots and automation and efficiency, it feels like that’s taking away that human element. I’m hoping that’s not going to take away the storytelling now. What do you feel about that?

Sean:                     I don’t see replacing the human side of a lot of this. It just don’t see it happening anytime soon, whether it’s … I always say this to my employees, to friends, family, everybody at the root of everything we do in life, there is the fundamental truth or trust or what we call grace that we have to give to people. People exist because, and communicate with one another, because ultimately they have to trust that each other has the best intention for one another’s success. So when I think about taking a help desk call internally, I think to myself, the first thing a person on the other line is doing is judging you and saying, is this person I’m talking to have my best interest in mind? Do I trust them? And when you start thinking about things like bots and other types of artificial intelligence, I think that’s a tough thing to argue that those people, those kinds of things I trust versus a real human being on the phone, I trust them that much more.

                                I do think, and I hate to say this, I do think that the longterm, I mean as long as the problem gets resolved, that will create trust from the humans. So if I can call in or have a bot answer my question or frankly preemptively know what I need to fix something, I think I will gain trust in those things. But that’s going to take time and it’s a scary thing. I mean, I could have told you 10 years ago, there’s no way I will shop online for stuff and have it delivered to my house for many reasons. Whether it’s [inaudible 00:21:08] or it’s I don’t know I’m getting the best price or whatever it is. I need to talk to somebody at the store. In the next five, 10 years I think, no question about it we’re going to see these cars drive themselves.

                                I think that storefronts that sold clothes, I don’t know if you guys watch how the shopping centers in the malls of the world, how they’re quickly changing from what used to be retail centers to restaurants and other types of what I’ll say are storefronts, if you will. Because people decided I’m going to go look at what I like on that storefront and go buy it online and buy it for the best price online. So those are things that we have to adopt and get used to. But at first I wouldn’t have thought that was going to happen. I didn’t trust that was the way things were going to work out 10 years ago. But they just have, so I would just say be open to it as I tell people, to these things and try to learn more about it and not be so resistant to what will change in our lives.

Chris:                     Now just sticking on that marketing topic for the moment, do you have any thoughts about how a marketer who is in charge of a technology brand these days might be able to humanize it?

Sean:                     Well, I think the best stories that we’re seeing out there are playing to human emotions like you described the gentleman, the young child who ultimately found benefit from playing an online game through I think it was the Microsoft Xbox and bringing his friends and family together. So those kinds of things are impactful. Truly proving that a doctor can save a life through, in a hospital bed, through artificial intelligence or through an augmented reality or you’re seeing this stuff in other countries right now where ultimately Doctors Across Borders where I can deliver you telemedicine but see the same thing you’re seeing through a Google glasses or a Hollow Lens, or another sort of virtual augmented reality. That kind of stuff to me is what marketers should be sort of presenting as the human side of how the technology through the human lens and how technology is impacting that. That’s where I think it should go.

Chris:                     So I’m hearing that there are still going to be some great stories to tell.

Sean:                     Oh, for sure. For sure.

Chris:                     I’ll still have a job. That’s great. So let’s put on your future hat if you like. And what do you think is coming along next in this field?

Sean:                     Well, I’m so curious, I really am. I want to see what shakes up in the whole, just autonomous driving industry. I really do. I thought it would be a little quicker than it has now movement wise. I think when I say autonomous, I think we’ve seen the fact that cars can drive themselves. What’s going to happen when you sit in that car in the future as a human, as you’re moving from place to place? I think you’re going to have more access to things like wireless connectivity and ultimately things around you. So let’s say I’m in an autonomous vehicle and I pull up on a corner and it’s tracking my habits like I mentioned earlier. It knows that I love donuts and that I love hamburgers and hotdogs and I happen to pull up to a Dunkin Donuts, which is obviously a famous US brand.

                                Maybe I’ll get a coupon in my phone right then and there saying, “Hey, pull any you get a buy one, get one free donut”. I think that’s going to be … When we have that time in the moving vehicle that we’re in, in the future, I think we’re going to see more stuff like that. I wonder with logistics, I think a lot about logistics right now and I think to myself Amazon has done a fantastic job of moving consumer goods and it’s also done a really good job of now getting into the food and beverage, grocery, if you will, industry. I still wonder what’s going on with other types of services. For example, if I’m at my home and I need a part from a hardware store or a mechanics store or something like that, is there ways to get that sort of instant gratification a lot quicker.

                                I think that’s going to be the next step is people who happen to be in that area get a request from you to pick up that part and then bring it to your home or to somewhere nearby and they make a little money in that transit of goods and you ultimately benefit, because you didn’t have to run out of the house to go get it. So a lot less traffic on the road and the traffic that is on the road, it’s moving in a more orchestrated manner. And then when you think about that and what it’s done, and I want to talk about orchestrated manner, autonomous driving, less traffic, I also start to think about how that moves the working world. Meaning I drive every day, 45 minutes if not an hour to and fro my workplace, if I could take back that one hour-

Chris:                     That would be beautiful.

Sean:                     … and really what it should be taking me is about 15 minutes according to the miles, I’m about 15 miles from my workplace. What could I do with that 45 minutes each way, that hour and a half in productivity in the workplace? And how might that change across many, many employees having that time back, the global economy? So I think this whole driving logistics movement, all this stuff’s going to be interesting in the future. I think AI is going to do a lot of what we talked about earlier, which is just help us make better decisions in a positive way. I am terrified by security and how we deal with just the amounts of data that are out there on the internet that unfortunately as I tell my kids all the time. It cannot be taken back. Something that’s been given will never be taken back from internet.

Chris:                     We can do a whole other episode on that couldn’t we?

Sean:                     Yes. A lot to think about.

Chris:                     Yeah. What I’m hearing in your view of the future mate, really seems to come back to my colleague’s three points or three rules that he came up with, which was convenience, inclusivity and simplicity. Everything that you’re saying there about the autonomous cars and saving [inaudible 00:26:40] in a day just points all the way back to those. So yeah. Interesting stuff mate.

Sean:                     No, like I say, we have our own lives to live, our closest and immediate family to support and then the people that we care the most around us to just be around and support as well. And then to think about all this technology is being thrown at us. All we’re looking for in life is a simpler, more convenient way to live our daily lives. So we get the most out of it by the way. And that’s something that I think right now, you ask yourself every day when you go home, “Did I have the best day I could have had and how many distractions were in it and how many of those were distractions from technology.” I think we’re going to get there, where we’ll leverage technology more to make better decisions or to help us make better decisions on our behalf in the future to get that convenience that you mentioned earlier in our daily lives, but it’s just, it’s still not there yet.

Chris:                     Just got to keep that eye on the price.

Sean:                     Yep.

Chris:                     For sure. Well mate, thank you so much for joining me today. I have really loved this discussion. This has been fantastic. Something a little bit different for the podcast, but very enjoyable for me and hopefully for the listeners, so thanks for your time today.

Sean:                     All right. Thank you so much.

Chris:                     Cheers.

Sean:                     Cheers. See you. Bye-Bye.

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